Pam Cave seems sincere in her belief that the way to improve public schools is to allow vouchers [Close to Home, May 30]. But she's wrong, and her discussion, which focused on "market forces" and "competition" missed the point.

First, the most vital issue in the debate about school vouchers is whether we, as a society, are willing to continue to provide a level playing field for all our children. Public schools have made the American dream possible, and we should consider long and hard before throwing away a system that has worked to benefit so many of us.

The shortcomings of vouchers are not just philosophical, however. They are practical as well.

Cave argued that the "competition" of vouchers will reduce educational costs. That may be true at the voucher schools, but not because they are better managed. Unlike public schools, voucher schools do not have to enroll all who apply. They can turn away students with special needs, students who do not speak English and those with discipline problems -- in other words, students who are expensive to educate. In Virginia, private school students do not even have to pass the Standards of Learning tests upon which the future of public education seems to rest these days.

As to the competition of vouchers bringing down costs in the public schools: More than 80 percent of the budget for Fairfax County Public Schools goes to salaries and benefits for employees, most of whom are teachers. Would Cave suggest a reduction in teacher pay? Or maybe she would prefer that the public schools cut back on school maintenance, supplies or books, all of which are competitively bid. I hope she would not go after technology programs, as they are key to the future of many students.

Finally, where voucher schools have been tried (principally in Cleveland and Milwaukee), they have not demonstrated any substantial academic benefits. A state-commissioned study of the Cleveland voucher program showed "no significant differences" between the students attending voucher schools and students attending public schools.

Oversight of voucher schools also has been a problem. In Milwaukee, several voucher schools were closed for issues ranging from mismanagement to fraud. Others used public funding to subsidize tuition of "paying" students. An independent audit of the voucher schools in Cleveland showed that nearly $2 million of the $8.7 million siphoned from public schools to fund them was misspent; ineligible private school students were receiving vouchers, and $1.4 million was used to send children to school in taxis. For less than half of what Cleveland spent on vouchers last year -- $4 million -- the city's public schools could have implemented a proven reading program in all 80 of its elementary schools.

We know how to improve student performance, and it isn't vouchers. Smaller class sizes in elementary schools, improving teacher education, implementing phonics-based reading instruction and lengthening the school year all have been shown to work. Of course, these programs cost money and require effort.

It saddens me that voucher proponents believe that we should place a higher priority on an unaccountable, unproven system of vouchers than on rolling up our sleeves, working for a common purpose and making the investments that research proves will improve public schools.

-- Stuart D. Gibson

is a member of the Fairfax County School Board.